Who Is Burning Down Detroit’s World-Famous Street Art?

The Heidelberg Project’s loud houses are under attack by an unknown arsonist. Tyree Guyton won’t stop creating, even if it’s on top of the rubble.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is playing inside Detroit artist Tyree Guyton’s head. His iconic Party Animal House, part of the world-renowned Heidelberg Project lays in front of him, burned to its foundation. “It’s already speaking to me, and that’s what I hear,” he says about his thoughts on March 7, as he stood looking at the installation after the fire.

The house was a focal point for the two-block open-air urban art installation on Detroit’s east side, and the latest casualty in a series of nine fires that have ravaged the project over the past 11 months. No arrests have been made and so far, no suspects have been named. There are only theories about who and why someone would do this.

Guyton, founder and artistic director of the project offers his explanation. “These actions are of pain and fear. They hurt, they feel pain. Instead of fixing that hurt inside themselves, they go out and hurt—they go out and do things like this and inflict pain on others.” He believes that mankind sets out to “fix” what it can’t control. “They want to fix things but they don’t want to fix people,” he says.

The Obstruction of Justice House, which burned down last year, is now reborn on the brick foundation, adorned with hundreds of toy figures, signs and found objects. Guyton says, “For the person that did this, I have nothing but love for them.”

Guyton’s wife and Heidelberg’s executive director, Jenenne Whitfield said in a phone interview that the person who set the first fire on May 3, which only partially burned the Obstruction of Justice House, has since come forward and apologized. She adds that the fire was set using gasoline, whereas the fires after were all set using acetone. There are always positives that come out of negatives she says. “If it wasn’t for the fires, the people in that neighborhood would never be introduced to solar power,” referring to new street lighting that will be installed as part of upgraded security measures at the project. “To get people talking and thinking is what our work is all about.”

Detroit fire investigators have set up a joint task force with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and local law enforcement to investigate the fires. According to investigators, the fires have all been declared arsons but at this time they are withholding the exact method used to set the structures ablaze. On the record they are only willing to say that all the fires were set in the early morning hours, were similar in nature and that the buildings were completely engulfed in flames when fire companies arrived at the scene. Currently, they are without any suspects but are hoping that their reward program of $5,000 leading to the arrest and/or conviction of persons responsible will bring witnesses forward.

The Heidelberg Project released a statement after the most recent fire on March 7. “Following the destruction of the House of Soul on November 12, 2013, Heidelberg Project supporters around the world rallied to pool over $54,000 to fund the implementation of a comprehensive security plan for the HP community, including increased lighting, mobile patrol, and surveillance equipment. Additionally, the Erb Family Foundation along with the Kresge Foundation kicked in additional funding just under $18,000 to help with the overall plan and patrolling.” Since then, other individuals, businesses and local foundations have also come forward to help.

In front of the Numbers House along Heidelberg street, Guyton is watching from the ground while Dorral Goforth of Communication Services is up on a lift finishing the installation of a new HD robotic security camera on a tree in front. “I never thought I would have to do this,” he says, looking up.

The device is part of a $10,000 solar-powered “MobiPod” security system donated by Devin Mudd and his metro Detroit company Digital Planet. After hearing about the string of fires, Mudd and his wife Shauna decided to help. They had planned to install the system before Christmas but the cold weather prevented it until now. Mudd says the high-tech robotic camera, paired with proprietary software, “will allow for motion tracking on the Numbers House in the evening so if someone is walking by or is on the property, the camera will follow and record. We also will use a guard duty feature which allows the camera to move to preset locations on a timed schedule.” This type of camera he said, is typically used for securing sensitive areas like maritime, oil and gas, broadcast and correctional facilities where high resolution imagery is needed. The system will record and upload images and time-lapse photography into the cloud, providing the Heidelberg Project and law enforcement with access to review footage whenever necessary.

After hearing on the news that the House of Soul, a house entirely covered with vinyl records, had burned to the ground in early November, Jim Clements got in touch with the people at Heidelberg. Owner of Nomax Technologies, a tech-consulting firm in Harrison Township, Michigan Clements volunteered his services and that of his crew to help strengthen security for the project. He is now heading the development, installation and maintenance of surveillance systems, solar street lighting, network systems and security guards at the site. “I’m glad to be a part of it,” he says.

The Heidelberg Project has always been controversial since Guyton began a monumental journey 28 years ago to bring attention to the dire condition of his neighborhood. “To show the world what is possible with nothing,” he says. He transformed houses, sidewalks and lawns into what is now an internationally known masterpiece, decorating them with paintings, furniture, old shoes, car parts, tires, shopping carts and the list goes on.

In 1991, Detroit Mayor Colman Young, who thought the area was an eyesore, had many of the installations demolished. In 1999, Mayor Dennis Archer sent in his own team of bulldozers to raze the art, but the artist stayed put and rebuilt. So far the current mayor, Mike Duggan, refuses to comment on the Heidelberg Project or the recent fires.

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Whitfield explains that the city has always looked for the new and innovative somewhere else, “instead of concentrating on their treasures at home.” She maintains the city has a severe confidence problem and is notorious for not supporting its own. “Artwork is the medicine of the community.” To bring back the city she says, “It’s going to take all people and the hope is with the young people.”

Given the history of the project and sections previously demolished by the city, the artist is no stranger to starting over. After the “Clock House” was destroyed on Dec. 8, the remains of the building spoke to Guyton, “It’s time, it’s time, it’s time.” Heeding the call to reclaim the house by transforming it into something new, he began to hang clocks back up on the one charred wall left standing after the fire. This act was not only the rebirth of the house, but the forging ahead with new work for Guyton. The theme of ‘time’ is at the forefront of his work now. “Time and reality are going to bring something else,” he explains.

David Harrison is a lifelong friend and neighbor of Guyton who grew up with him on the street. He says he has an idea who could be setting the fires, and claims there are witnesses who saw the person but are afraid to come forward. Some believe, like Harrison, that the fires could have been set by someone who used to work for the artist but was told to leave. “There’s always a plus,” he says about set-backs, like the fires that have destroyed the installations, “you just got a bigger canvas.”

The international reach of the Heidelberg Project is evident on any given day as visitors from around the world explore and weave their way through the art placed throughout the neighborhood. Floor Schils, a teacher with her students from Olympus College’s Opus gifted school in the Netherlands exploring the project said, “Even in Holland we know about this story.” The group is in town on an exchange program with the Roeper School in Birmingham, Michigan and came out to tour the project. “I think [the Heidelberg Project] is something positive among all the negative news we see about Detroit.”

Having a look around the Heidelberg with colleagues on his lunch hour was U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman. He explains there has been a lot of discussion about the project and the fires between them all, so they decided to come out and have a look for themselves. He believes the most likely culprit is someone wanting attention. “It’s probably some psycho,” he says.

Walking to work past the Numbers House where Mudd’s crew is installing the new security system, Jasmine Bell talks about growing up over the past 20 years on Heidelberg Street. “We used to help Tyree build stuff,” she says about the art installations. She has no idea why someone would set the fires but thinks it is most likely someone jealous of the artist. “He’s successful, people see that and want it too,” she explains. “There are always going to be haters out there.”

Even though all but two houses, the Numbers House and The People’s House are now gone, Guyton continues to create. His new work ‘time’ is evident throughout the two blocks that make up the project, where colorful clocks painted on huge sheets of plywood jut out from layers of snow in lots, while others are nailed to trees along the sidewalk, the sides of the homes still standing and the burned-out shells of Guyton’s internationally-acclaimed art center. This new vision, a result of the devastating fires, brings a different reality to the scene. As the artist puts it, “Plato says, ‘Time is the moving image of reality’.”

Back in front of the Numbers House, watching work crews install the new security system, the Heidelberg’s assistant director, Alvita Lozano, sums up the controversial art project, “Detroit is famous for exporting cars. Well,” she says, “Heidelberg exports hope.”